Vail Valley locals compete in Patrouille Des Glaciers mountaineering race in Switzerland
In 2019, Chris Aubel of Edwards found himself in the grips of an obsession. Driven by a giddy expectation, he would routinely gather up his AT gear and skin up Arrowhead, Beaver Creek and Meadow Mountain, each outing a small victory.
Aubel was inspired by the morning serenity and soon had company on his “ups” from Edgard Cabanillas, a friend and fellow Rotarian in the Vail Rotary Club. After a morning meeting, or perhaps it was on one of their skin ups, Cabanillas suggested they take it to a higher level. “Let’s race the PDG,” Cabanillas said to Aubel.
The Patrouille Des Glaciers, or “PDG” in Switzerland is the “Grandpere” of all ski mountaineering races. “It’s the biggest, baddest Skimo race out there,” Aubel said he remembers thinking at the time. “We aren’t getting any younger. I’m in.”
Since the race only happens every two years, there was no time to waste; they gained an entry spot for their team, named it the “The Vail Mountaineers,” kept training and awaited the 2020 PDG.
Insert pandemic here.
Flashforward to 2022, the two are sitting on the deck at Loaded Joe’s in Avon in late May. As they recount the adventure they have, after a long wait, just completed, Cabanillas harkens back to those early mornings in 2019. “I thought I needed to concentrate on the uphilling, so that’s mostly what we did,” he said. “Really though, the PDG is a full-on mountaineering race. You’re skinning, you’re bootpacking, you’re downhilling so it takes a lot of skiing skills to do it. It also takes a good amount of planning and financial wherewithal. We’re so happy we were able to get back there and get it done.”
The history of PDG begins in the early 1940s before World War II. Patrouille Des Glaciers loosely translates to “Patrol of the Mountains.” Originally, it was a training course on a system of trails designed to develop Swiss military skills and knowledge in order to defend the country’s mountainous borders if all roads were cut off by the enemy.
Today’s PDG is an accredited ski mountaineering race with over 1,500 teams competing in an expanded, four-race format. Military and police teams still participate — in fact, after the war up until the early ’80s, no civilians competed in the PDG — but now the PDG hosts qualified competitors from all over the world.
Traditionally, few American teams have gained entry. On the recommendation of one of Cabanillas’ Swiss friends, they arranged to hire a guide, a usual practice that helps to secure a team spot, especially for non-Swiss competitors. Also, it increases the likelihood of finishing since getting lost in unfamiliar terrain can be a danger.
“We were fortunate to have Mario, our guide because even though he had never done the race, he was familiar with the area,” Cabanillas said.
Now a team of three, the group trained for a day together at Verbier ski resort and another day on an early section of their course. Anticipation peaked when a storm rolled in and blanketed parts of the racecourse with fresh snow threatening avalanche danger and yet again, the viability of their race.
Some preliminary races were postponed and the Vail Mountaineers team began to think the entire PDG might be canceled. Fortunately, owing to the highly organized event staff, the avalanche danger was mitigated, and the race was on.
It’s a long day no matter which race you run. Course Z from Zermatt to Verbier is 53 kilometers (about 33 miles). Racers for this course start in the late evening and then the rest go off in stages after that. “Our race was Course A from Arolla to Verbier,” Aubel said. Arolla is about halfway between Zermatt and Verbier.
“The most screwed up thing was the start time,” Cabanillas said. “We left our hotel at 11 p.m. and were bused to the start for our heat at 3 a.m. Our gear had been inspected a few days earlier, so they checked our stamps and then we were off. After just a little while, the Zermatt folks started passing us. It’s pretty incredible how fast they can go, but we kept to our plan and set our own pace.”
Even with the new snow, the race had challenging conditions. Race times were slower overall compared with 2018, the last time the race was held. In fact, about 20% of participants were not able to complete their races this year. Course A is 29.6 kilometers long with the more treacherous parts being some downhill sections. Using their skills and witnessing some amazing scenery, the trio reached the highest point, Mt. Rosablanche (3,160 meters) a little more than halfway through their race and descended toward the finish in Verbier from there.
Under a sunny spring sky and over another round at Loaded Joe’s, Cabanillas reflects on their grand adventure. “We didn’t break any records, but we sure had a blast,” he said. Aubel chimed in, “We’re keeping our time a team secret! Let’s just say it took the better part of a full day and we didn’t finish last.”
Cabanillas takes a moment to explain how supported they were by friends and family. His friend, Lindsay Broach’s father, Dudley Broach, was a particularly enthusiastic supporter who unfortunately passed away after the race from a battle with cancer. “Dudley loved Vail and thought what we accomplished was amazing,” Cabanillas said.
Aubel agrees and brightens at a memory of the race. “So, we’re coming into the finish area, and we hear ‘Vail Mountaineers! Vail Mountaineers!’ It turns out Vail locals Fred and Chrissy Rumsford happened to be in Verbier and came out to cheer us on. They must have seen our team’s name on the roster.” Aubel said, laughing. “Next time, and there will be a next time, we’ll have an even bigger cheering section!”